Court rejects school's effort to dismiss free speech lawsuit
- A judge has rejected Pierce College's motion to dismiss a lawsuit filed by a student who was forbidden from handing out Constitutions on campus.
- The school tried to argue that its campus is a "non-public forum," but the judge ruled that public college campuses are "traditional public fora" subject to wide latitude for spontaneous free expression.
Pierce College will have to defend the constitutionality of its policies restricting speech to just 0.003 percent of campus after a judge rejected its motion to dismiss a student’s lawsuit.
With help from attorneys at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), student Kevin Shaw sued the school in March after administrators refused to let him distribute copies of the Constitution outside of the school’s “free speech zone,” which encompasses just 616 square feet of the 426-acre campus.
Shaw was also told he must fill out a permit application to use the free speech zone, and that he would have to leave campus if he refused to comply, which the school’s defense attorneys have sought to justify by arguing that the campus is a “non-public forum”
According to the court order, the motion was dismissed in part because “given the traditional purpose of the open, outdoor areas of universities, such as the ‘Mall’ on Pierce’s campus, the Court finds that these areas are traditional public fora, regardless of Pierce’s regulations naming them non-public fora.”
At issue was the school’s contention that rules established by the Los Angeles Community College District designate all areas of the district’s campuses “non-public fora” except for those that are specifically set aside as “Free Speech Areas.”
Shaw, however, pointed out that the California Education Code contradicts that policy, requiring community colleges to allow all lawful forms of free expression that do not substantially disrupt normal operations, thereby rendering them, at the very least, “designated public fora.”
“The court’s ruling sends an important message to colleges nationwide that still restrict student speech to free speech zones,” FIRE Director of Litigation Marieke Tuthill Beck-Coon remarked in a press release. “The campus is a college student’s public square. It’s their space to be engaged citizens. The public recognizes this. So do courts across the country. Now it’s time for LACCD to follow suit.”
“This decision sends a clear signal to all university administrators that mistakenly believe they can create rules that supersede the Constitution,” concurred Young Americans for Liberty (YAL) Director of Free Speech Alexander Staudt. “I see this as a victory in the fight for free speech.”
"To walk completely across this campus would take hours and it is absurd that there is only a small space on that walk where free speech is allowed,” added Alex Murphy, president of the YAL chapter at Pierce College. “This case is not just about Pierce College, but every public university in the nation that has unconstitutional free speech policies."
The LACCD is the largest community college district in the country, and Shaw’s lawsuit has the potential to affect the free speech rights of more than 150,000 students.
Pierce College spokesperson Yusef Robb told Campus Reform that “we do not comment on pending litigation,” but insisted that the school is not hostile to free speech.
“We are fully committed to free expression on our campuses,” Robb said. “As a community college district, promoting the free exchange of ideas and knowledge is at the core of what we do, every day.”
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